Easter 5 – 5/2/2021 – St. Paul’s
Almost 43 years ago, I was on a retreat prior to my ordination to the diaconate. My Spiritual director was an amazing spiritual giant in my estimation by the name of Alan Jones. He preached at the end of our retreat and said something I have never forgotten. My brothers in Christ (we were all male at the time), after you are ordained, the Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go. If you wanted to go there, the Spirit would be unnecessary.
I thought of those words when I read today’s Acts’ lesson about Phillip, one of the first seven deacons selected and set apart by the laying on of hands. (Acts 6:1-6) I’m pretty sure that hitch-hiking in the wilderness was not what Phillip and the others had in mind when they accepted the call to serve the Lord. After all, the need presented to them was food distribution to the widows – nothing whatsoever was said about going on the road, preaching, baptizing or anything like that. But like Alan Jones said, The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go, or at least somewhere you never expected to go, doing things you never expected to be doing. I think that is how I ended up here.
Get up and go, the angel said, and Phillip got up and went. He was told no more than that he should head south to the road between Jerusalem to Gaza, not even what it was he was supposed to do when he got there. This is a recurring theme in the scriptures; this business of God saying get up and go, and people of faith getting up and going. Let’s see, among many others – there are Abram and Sarai, told to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to the land that I will show you. There’s Jonah, who first got up and went the other way, but after that adventure with the fish, the second time God called he came around and got up and went. And most famously, there’s Saint Paul who, after his experience of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus was told to Get up and go to the street called Straight.
We are, I am, a lot more hesitant than Abram and Sarai, or Phillip, or Saul. We are, I am, a lot more like Jonah – apt to run in the opposite direction, or at least to ask for specifics of the job and and conditions upon our participation. I’m available on Tuesdays. I’ll go anywhere – but no, not there, that won’t work for me. I’m not sure I’m suited to working with those people – they push me too far out of my comfort zone. And do you know how God generally responds to all that hesitation and condition making? Pretty much the way our parents responded when we explained to them why we couldn’t make our bed, or do the dishes, or mow the grass. God stands there and listens, and then says, That’s nice. Now, get up and go.
Truly, it’s a good thing that God does not fully explain things to us before asking us to respond to the call. If God did, most of us would not say yes. It would be too frightening. And the reason it would be too frightening is that we would foolishly assume that God was asking us to do these impossible, over-whelming, out of our comfort zone things using our own reason and strength, our own ability and skill; and nothing could be further from the truth. God doesn’t tell us what we’ll be doing because the main thing God needs from us is our willingness to go, trusting that when the ministry need appears, the ability to respond to it will appear as well.
This is what happens with Phillip. He got up and went to the south, to the road that runs through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza. And as he stood there, an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, came along in his chariot. Now, suppose God had said to Phillip, I want you to go and talk about Jesus with one of the most powerful people in the world. And by the way; he’s not Jewish, indeed he’s ritually unclean because of his sexuality, and he’s an African. How excited would Phillip have been about that?
On the one hand he might have felt overwhelmed and under prepared; on the other hand, he may have been like Paul and Jonah – unwilling to go because he didn’t want to be involved with one of those people. But God didn’t give Phillip that kind of choice. And he doesn’t give us that kind of choice either. We are called to go where the Holy Spirit leads us – whether we want to go there or not. We are called to open our doors, our arms, our hearts, and our minds, to all people – not just the people we happen to like and who happen to like us. When God calls us to get up and go, the only faithful response is to get up and go.
In his telling of this story, Luke makes good use of questions. Did you notice that? When Phillip heard the man reading Isaiah, he asks, Do you understand what you’re reading?The Eunuch responds by asking Phillip, About whom is he talking? These are good questions and a good model for us as we talk to others about Jesus. What would happen if – instead of trying to convince others to see things our way, we were to ask questions, and listen, and have a conversation about God, faith and Jesus?
So here’s the question in this text that really matters for us today. After hearing the gospel, the Ethiopian says to Phillip, Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?What indeed? He is asking Philip, Will my being a non-Jew, a Black man, and ritually unclean man, leave me out in the cold, outside looking in? Can I be a part of the new community of Grace and love God has created? What prevents me from being baptized?
And Phillip realizes the answer to the question…What is to prevent me from being baptized? is silence. I love the resounding silence that follows the eunuch’s question. Because the silence speaks what words cannot. The silence is thundering, and gorgeous, and seismic, and right. Because the answer to the question is silence. The answer — the only answer — is nothing. In the post-resurrection world, in the world where the Spirit of God moves where and how she will, drawing all of creation to herself, in the world where the Word lives to defeat death, alienation, isolation, and fear, there is nothing to prevent a beloved image-bearer of God from entering into the fullness of Christ’s salvation. Nothing whatsoever. Nothing matters but the love of God and the faith of the believer.
Here’s the question for us: This is the question the early church had to continually ask themselves. What is to prevent me? Are we preventing others from being baptized, from coming to faith, from hearing the story of Jesus? What is to prevent me from belonging to the family of God? What is to prevent me from being welcomed as Christ’s own? What is to prevent me from full participation in the risen life and community of Jesus? What is to prevent me from breaking down the entrenched barriers, fences, walls, and obstacles that have kept me at an agonizing arm’s length from the God I yearn for? What is to prevent me from becoming, not merely a hearer of the Good News, but an integral part of the Good News of resurrection? The book of Acts is the story of the first Christians learning to break down traditional boundaries between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, men and women, Romans and conquered peoples, etc.
The question is not about the wideness of God’s embrace. The question is not about God’s capacity or readiness to lead his beloved ones to baptism. As this story makes abundantly clear, the Spirit will do what the Spirit will do. The only question that remains is whether we’ll participate in the joyful post-resurrection work of God or not. Look, here is water! What is to prevent us from stepping in? And the boundaries must continue to fall. Every time we think we’re finished, every time we think we have finally gone as far as we can go, every time we believe we have opened our arms as wide as we can open them; the voice comes and whispers in our ear one more time, Get up and go. And the question is, will it be said of us, they got up and went?
Let us pray:
expansive Holy Spirit of the living,
Shake us up and move us out from the cozy confines of this congregation
so that we might enjoy being part of your gospel.
Nothing holds you back, evangelistic Spirit.
No people anywhere on the globe is held back from your loving embrace.
Bring to our limited minds awareness of all those who may,
because of our timidity and reserve,
think that the message of Jesus Christ is not a message addressed to them.
Then, help us to become engaged with you in your mission to the ends of the earth
so that your kingdom comes and your will is done in heaven and to the ends of the earth. All done in your name so that the world may know the good news:
God says to all, Come on in. Amen